Enough about Sweden already. Let’s talk about me.
Today’s story has been in the works for more than a few weeks. It has a lot of personal information about my thoughts, feelings, and ideas, so if you’re more interested in the Swedish culture stuff, pictures of stairs, and fake charts, this monologue might not be for you.
Honestly, this story might not be for anyone but me, but since I’m sharing my thoughts on everything else, why break the streak now?
One of the main attractions for me in moving to Sweden was that I thought it would give me the opportunity to “turn off” for a while.
I don’t know nearly as many people here, so combine that with Sweden’s more reasonable speed of life; not having as many expenses; therefore not having to work so much, et cetera. All these elements would theoretically come together and allow me to explore some larger, longterm projects that I ordinarily wouldn’t have the ability to. More rest, more quiet, less pushing myself to do new things, less need to try to change things.
I’ve had several conversations lately about whether it’s okay to live without goals. I know there are millions of people who just go to work, eat, sleep, and maybe hang out with their family or friends. That’s all they do. There’s no larger plan for their career or anything else. For them, day-to-day life is the plan. It goes on for decades and there’s nothing wrong with it. For a lot of people, especially in places like America in a tough economy, that’s all that they can afford to do. Others aren’t even that lucky. For some, just doing something is all they need to be happy.
There are those people in the world who know exactly what they want to do with their lives when they’re twelve years old. Doctor, lawyer, photographer, fireman, news reporter, forest ranger, computer programmer, teacher, president. Whatever it is, some people know instinctively what they want to do. I just wasn’t one of those people. Sometimes I envy them. Okay, most of the time. It seems like it would be so much easier to just know.
Instead, I have needed to invent big projects for myself to keep me busy. I’ve always felt like I was supposed to be doing something special, but since I haven’t known what that special thing was, I have tried just about everything that interested me. These undertakings entertain me and occasionally pay my bills. Usually they overlapped and I ended up doing a dozen things at once.
I haven’t needed luxuries like a fancy car, a DVD collection, concert tickets, nice furniture, a big wardrobe, home ownership, fancy dinners, et cetera. It’s always nice visiting people who do have those things, but over the past decade – even before moving across the ocean – I have gradually been downsizing the volume of my belongings.
When I moved to Rhode Island in 2001, I rented a moving truck. Less than two years later, when moving to California, I committed myself to keeping only what I could fit in my Volvo wagon. That was liberating.
The lack of owning so many things has permitted me to live with a little more freedom. Not having monthly payments for a mortgage, car, whatever, has made it possible for me to explore larger projects that require dedicated time and resources. Whether the project has been publishing a magazine with interviews of my friends, writing songs, putting out records, building a social networking site, running for office, or whatever, these projects have added a lot to my life and hopefully have engaged or entertained others.
A lot of the projects I took on had the theme of being unique: either no one had done something like it before, or it needed to be done and it seemed no one else was going to do it.
I don’t know if other people don’t have the same kinds of ideas I have, or if other people just don’t pursue them. People are always saying “wouldn’t it be cool if…” but if I have an idea like that, I try to do something about it instead of letting it remain in a conversation. That started a long time ago and has built progressively with each project. I suppose the ability to do such things comes in small degrees.
I think in moving away, I wanted to put all that on hold for a while. My efforts to expand my own boundaries weren’t necessarily starting to take too much away from me, but something was happening.
Specifically, running for state senate was a dream I had for a quite a while. It was a big goal which unfortunately turned out so unlike my expectations. Rather than being something positive and influential, a lot of the time and energy in my campaign was spent fighting just for the right to participate. It was just exhausting at times when it should have been exhilirating. Of course I’m glad I did it, and just participating in the process was an achievement I’m proud of. I don’t regret it and I would do it all over again. Maybe one day I will. (I can’t believe I just typed that sentence.)
I met hundreds of people during the campaign and I received priceless support toward the effort from just as many. Because of that support, I felt a constant drive to do everything I could to not let anyone down. Once someone gives you their hard-earned money and asks you to see if you can make a difference with it, it’s nearly impossible to not keep fighting, even when all the odds and money are gone. I can’t say too much about any of it yet, really, because here I am on the other side of the world and I can feel myself starting to get all worked up about it. The lawsuit that disqualified me and its plaintiff – my opponent who was re-elected as the district’s senator – are not my favorite topics… Yet I’m still being very careful to be kind with my words. (Using the term “re-elected” is one way of being very kind.)
The day after the election was bittersweet. I was so relieved that Barack Obama had been elected. I still kind of can’t believe it. (Every time I check the American news, I am impressed and ecstatic at each new overdue misconduct he is trying to take on. It’s almost too good to be true.) The day after the election there was also a sense of relief that the public aspect of my campaign was over. That might be the day I decided for sure that I was moving to Sweden.
I remember saying to a friend, “I could stay in Kentucky and continue fighting for the rest of my life, or I could just go where everything is already fixed.” That’s an oversimplification of things and I think it’s unnecessarily harsh and childish, but maybe it captures the feeling of the time. I don’t like fighting. I don’t want to spend my life being angry over things that I may never be able to affect. I would rather create things or just throttle down a bit. Unwind, reset, breathe. What would it be like to relax, or have the time to read, or go on a date, or do anything else most people do that have somehow eluded me?
The anonymity aspect has turned out to be much as I expected. Sometimes it’s too much. Everyone knows the feeling of being alone in a crowd. Maybe some of the lonliest people in the world are those who are living in big cities, surrounded by other people who are talking, laughing, holding hands, chatting on the phone, and otherwise carrying on.
Even in a year-round Casual Friday community like Louisville, where people are always saying things to people they don’t know, it’s still possible – if not very easy – to go an entire day without speaking to anyone. That’s even easier in the iPod Age where everyone has headphones and you’re in a country where those who don’t are speaking a language you don’t understand.
The several-month project of selling and giving away virtually everything I own was obviously an overwhelming endeavor. As you can imagine, it was at once painful and liberating. My move to Sweden made moving in a Volvo look positively posh. I arrived here with only a rolling suitcase and a guitar case. With the exception of a few boxes in my parents’ basement, if I move back to Louisville at any point, there’s not any material “stuff” there to go back to. My car, apartment, furniture, books, music, dishes, everything – it’s all gone.
I expected that once the process of shedding my earthly belongings, saying farewells to friends and family, and getting on the plane was finished, that would be the moment I crossed the line and I would really be able to turn off for a while. From several previous, extended visits, I already knew the basics of finding my way around Stockholm, the public transit, and stuff like that. I could unpack my few things here and just let go.
I’m not sure how it could have escaped me that moving to a different country with a different language is, in itself, a huge project.
I’m sure it is self-evident to anyone reading this, that learning a new word for everything and an entirely new way of talking is a really big project. It’s like if I started att skriva this helt på svenska du… I mean, if I started writing this totally in Swedish, you wouldn’t be able to understand any of it.
The good news is that even though it just occurred to me last month that this language thing is a gigantic project, I am way beyond the point of all the words looking and sounding crazy. I had a couple years of a head start in dabbling with the Swedish language in Louisville, which has proven to be helpful, but only a little bit.
At the very least, I understand the topic of most conversations. Depending on who’s talking or what’s being discussed, I understand a little more or a little less. Sometimes I don’t believe that the sounds my roommate Iida is making are actually talking. It’s so fast and I may only catch a word or two during a few minutes of listening to her and Erik chatting. On the other hand, sometimes when I’m reading, I have moments when I feel like I get it. Headlines and advertising are getting easier faster. If I’m watching Swedish television and the closed caption text in Swedish is on the screen, my comprehension skyrockets.
Even if I’m still less than 20% able to comprehend or carry on a real conversation comfortably in Swedish, I’m on my way toward it. It would be coming so much faster if Sweden wasn’t such a bilingual country. Here, it’s not like how some people in America speak Spanish and some speak English. Seriously, everyone in Sweden under 50 speaks both Swedish and English – and both languages well. A blessing and a curse. As soon as I begin speaking, even if I’m just ordering a coffee, the other person will inevitably start speaking English to me.
You might ask, if everyone speaks English, why bother learning Swedish? Honestly, I feel rude not knowing the language. If I like the place enough to live here, I owe it to everyone else to speak their language. If I’m in a group of people and they’re all speaking English because of me, well, it makes me feel silly. More often, I’d rather the conversation continue in Swedish, even if it means I’m not involved, just so I can hear more of the language in context.
Also on the plus side, I love the way Swedish sounds. It is beautiful and cool and like a song. There are special ways to pronounce things and a lot of it has a nod-nod-wink-wink quality to it. (Skiva is pronounced “whuooeevah” but skriva is “skreevah.” Ljug is pronounced “yoeg” and själv is “whhelf.” Sig is prounounced “say” and de is “doam.” This shit’s crazy! And those are short words! Not only that, but seeing it in print isn’t even a hint as to the inflection. Jävla betoning!)
The world around you looks different depending on the sounds that come with it. That’s something else I’ve been thinking a lot about. For example, if you’re walking around the city listening to Slayer on your iPod all day, your perspective will be different than if you’re looking at the same things while listening to Mexican mariachi music. (Most people I know have tons of mariachi music on their iPods.) I think the same is true of the sounds in the language you speak and hear. Whether it’s a harsh language like Russian or a mushy language like French, constant exposure to these sounds must have an effect on the people who speak the language.
The singing, fun, and active dynamics in the Swedish language must be somewhat responsible for the attitudes and personality the Swedish people have. In the same respect, the artistic and caring nature of the people must also influence the way the language continues to develop. When I first came to Sweden in the nineties, I fell in love with the entire package: the landscape, the people, the design aesthetics, the sound of the language. I’m still seeing everything I saw then, but now it is part of my everyday life.
I listen to several hours of language every day on my iPhone, whether it’s news or instruction or comedy. I push myself to hear more, even when I would rather listen to something in English. Even then, if I’m thinking about other things, not exactly tuned in to what’s playing, or sleeping, it’s still there and I believe I am subconsciously absorbing something from it.
Trying to figure out what everyone is saying all the time is no small task. My brain is getting a serious work-over every day. I think an hour of trying to keep up with a Swedish conversation probably equates to four hours’ worth of English brain work. It’s like flipping through a turbo dictionary upstairs every time somebody talks. I’m pretty used to getting really tired really fast.
For several weeks, I was intentionally starving myself of American entertainment in order to submerge myself deeper into Swedish. That just ended up making me crazy. I’m starting to seek a balance now so I can build my Swedish while keeping my English sharp.
I’m on the case and I’m getting it. I’m just not sure how I missed the idea that this whole move is probably one of the biggest projects I’ve ever taken on. How could I have thought all this wasn’t a project at all?